A GLACIAL QUARTER

Someone suggested I dig through the couch cushions, my purse or the floor of my car and find a coin.  See what year is engraved on it. Then, try to recollect what I was doing that year and write about it. The idea intrigued me and I took up the challenge.

My desk yielded nothing useful. The first purse I ransacked was coin-less. Finally, I hit pay dirt. At the bottom of my all-purpose bag, a quarter emerged.

It took 10 minutes for me to decipher the date on the coin. It seems my eyes no long want to read such tiny numbers. The coin — a shiny quarter — celebrates a glacier. It says glacier on it, so I know that much. If there was additional information — like what glacier? — I didn’t see it. Or couldn’t read it. Whatever.

October 2011 - Blackstone Canal

October 2011 – Blackstone Canal

I felt lucky to decipher the date at all. Attempting more would be pressing my luck. I wondered where my magnifying glass had gone. It used to be on top of the desk … maybe it’s buried under several pounds of paper. Time may bring it to the surface. Or not.

I grew up in Queens, New York. One of the major east-west arteries in the borough is Hillside Avenue, always a very busy road, full of cars, trucks and buses. I crossed twice every day, on my way to school and back again. The year I was 15, I was hit by a small truck the corner of Hillside and 191st Street. We didn’t have cell phones, so I had to beg the grumpy shopkeeper who owned the candy store to let me call home so I wouldn’t have to limp up the long hill. I was obviously not going to die, but I was banged up. The driver stayed around exactly long enough — about 30 seconds — to see me get up. He knew I wasn’t dead and took off. Basic hit and run.

When my father got there, he wanted to know if I’d gotten the license plate number. I said no, I was laying on the ground and wasn’t in a good position to collect data. Dad was seriously pissed I didn’t get the number because, he said, I could have gone to college on the proceeds of the lawsuit. He never asked me how I felt or if I wanted to see a doctor. My mother — who never went to doctors for any reason — deduced I hadn’t broken anything. Good enough, I guess. I limped off to take a bath, feeling vaguely there was something wrong with the picture.

That was in 1962. I was a junior in high school.

Back to the quarter and the glacier. Hillside Avenue is precisely where the forward movement of the glacier that covered the region during the last ice age, stopped. Hillside Avenue, with its shops, bus stops and endless traffic was also, it would seem, a significant geological and archaeological marker. Whenever something was being built along the road, the archaeologists and paleontologists go explore it first. They’ve found all kinds of artifacts — the bones of extinct ice age animals, pottery and stone spearheads. I haven’t heard that they’ve found any mammoths, but I might have missed it. It was just a quarter-mile from where I grew up. Weird, eh?

As for 2011, I wasn’t doing much that year. I’d had cancer the previous year. 2011 was my recovery year. I had a slough of despond from which to emerge and a lot of physical issues to deal with. I also had to come to grips with a significantly changed body.

I took a lot of photographs in 2011 and read a lot of books. Which pretty much sums up the year. I remember because it was a particularly bright, colorful autumn and I got some of my best-ever foliage shots.

If I were going to give 2011 a title, I’d call it the year I didn’t die, Part III. That will do. There will (I hope) be other chapters. Stay tuned.

WAITING TO GO HOME

I moved to New England 35 years ago. I don’t want to sound like a cliché, but it feels as if it was no more than few months ago. On some level, I think like a transplanted New Yorker. Yet I’ve lived up here longer than I lived in New York. I’ve live here more than half my life.

P.S. 35

I grew up in Queens, New York. Holliswood. I went to P.S. 35 — the same school Art Buchwald attended (yes, I know, it’s not a big deal but it’s the best P.S. 35 offers) — J.H.S. 109 (which my husband also attended, but in a different year) and finally, Jamaica High School. That’s about as New York as it gets.

I was 30 years old when I moved overseas and settled in Jerusalem. I returned — to Massachusetts — in 1987. Other than visits, I haven’t lived in New York  since 1978. Odd how the early years, where you grew up, carries more weight than places you live later. Our “defaults” get set by where we take our first breaths, where we attend school.

I am hooked on the four season year. Autumn is the most evocative season, the crunching of leaves under the soles of brand new school shoes. The start of the school year. The year really begins in September — I am forever ruled by a school calendar that ceased being relevant in 1967.

Drifting leaves

When I was in Israel, I desperately missed Autumn. I yearned for snow that never fell. Even though now I could live without seeing another flake. And I wanted the ocean. I wanted to smell salt in the air, hear breakers hitting the shore. That feeling of the sea washing the sand out from under your bare feet as you stand in the surf with the waves lapping around your shins.

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I don’t want to go back to New York to live. I really don’t. I love the city but not that way, not to live there. Visiting New York is fun and full of memories, but I don’t want to make a home there. New England is home now and I can’t imagine living elsewhere.

We’ve got all four seasons (okay, three and a quarter really because spring is minimal). But a New England autumn is the best, though it isn’t as long as it was a few degrees of latitude south. As for winter?

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This valley outsnows just about every place except maybe central Nebraska and northern Minnesota. Not quite as cold and I don’t mind that.

It’s beautiful here … yet sometimes, I feel like a New Yorker, living here and waiting to go home. Why is that?

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School days: Boredom and Fear in Equal Measure

Childhood is a challenge. We romanticize childhood as a time of innocence and play, but childhood isn’t necessarily easy.

Many of us struggled. We had problems at home we couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about, social issues grownups dismissed, and lived with bullying tantamount to torture. Even today, with the attention these issues get in the press, things have not really changed. Bullying is as much a problem today as it was when I was a child. Teachers still ignore it and parents dismiss it. Kids continue to avoid talking about bad things that happen at home.

Awareness is not a cure. Publicity does not change what happens at home or in the schoolyard.

I was a very bright, precocious child. I was by no means the only smart kid in the school, but I probably had the worst social skills, was the most inept at sports, and talked like a 40-year old. Among social outcasts, I was an outcast. I lived in books and imagination.

I learned to read more or less instantly and spent the next six years trying to stay awake while being invisible.

I was either bored to tears or terrified of being sent out to the schoolyard. In third grade, I hid in the cloak room in the hopes no one would miss me. I found a stack of books and read them in the semi-dark by the light of one dim bulb.

The teacher was furious. I had read all the readers for my grade and all the grades to come through sixth grade. I would have read more but they found my hiding place and made me come out. The principal called my mother to complain I had read all the readers. My mother pointed out I might benefit from a more challenging curriculum. She reasoned if I could read all the readers in an hour, the work was too easy. They didn’t get it.

They wanted my mother to punish me for reading too much. She didn’t stop laughing for days. She thought it was hilarious and retold the story at every family gathering. I didn’t think it was nearly as funny because that teacher hated me after that and made third grade a special Hell. It wasn’t only other kids picking on me; my teacher was leading the charge. I didn’t understand what was going on. I just knew that no one liked me.

Eventually the teachers at P.S. 35 tired of me. I was annoying. I answered questions in class until I was told to shut up. After I was no longer allowed to participate in class, I fell asleep or snuck off to read in the girl’s room. The teachers must have had a meeting about me or something, because an agreement was reached that everyone would benefit from my absence. I was fond of arts and crafts so the solution was to send me to the art room after the Pledge of Allegiance. I spent many happy hours alone, experimenting with paint, library paste, and oak tag.

I was content in my little world of paint and glue, but I was not getting an education. I never learned arithmetic because I was in the art room gluing stuff together. The smell of library paste is deeply evocative … and I can’t do fractions or long division.

I started high school at 13 where my level of boredom reached epic heights. I was blessed by teachers whose idea of teaching was to read the textbook in a monotone. These classes were inevitably the first classes of the day when I was the sleepiest. I chipped a tooth one morning when my head fell forward and hit the desk.

I was so far ahead in English and History I was off the charts. At the same time, I fell ever further behind in maths and hard science. My pleas for help were ignored because I had a high IQ and was supposed to figure it out on my own. I suspect the world is divided between those for whom numbers are a language and those for whom numbers and hieroglyphics are the same.

Numbers did not speak to me. I was in my thirties reading Horatio Hornblower when I realized trigonometry was used to calculate trajectories and navigation. I wish I’d known that when I was trying to understand what I was doing.

Now an officially protected landmark, my alma mater was a beautiful building.

I was by no means the only lost soul in math classes. There was always a group of us who sat there with glazed eyes, wondering why we needed this and if failing it would end our hopes of going to college.

As for science, Jamaica High School was run by practical administrators. The group of us who sat paralyzed in math classes were all college-bound. It was clear we were never going to pass physics or chemistry, but needed a science credit. So they invented a science course for us. It was called “The History of Science.” We spent an entire year discussing Stonehenge. I loved it. I completed the science requirement, graduated with an academic diploma, and continued on to college.

My real education consisted of books, both those I read by choice and those my mother made me read. She made sure I read good books. “Growth of the Soil” by Knut Hamsen, a Nobel prize-winning author who authored the world’s most depressing novels stands out in memory. Then, there was Romain Rolland whose novel in 10-volumes, Jean-Christophe was an unbelievably long, fictionalized biography of Beethoven. Rolland got a Nobel prize in literature and I read his tome, but have never met anyone else who read it. I assume the Nobel Committee read it too, but I never met them.

The New York Public Library is an amazing place. The lions that stand guard in front of the building are almost as famous as the library itself.

I cut school a lot. Living in New York had benefits. A subway token could take you anywhere. I played hooky to go to the huge New York Public Library, the Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hayden Planetarium. My mother knew, but pretended she didn’t. She could hardly approve my skipping school, but I wasn’t hanging out at the mall: I was getting an education on my own terms.

One of New York’s most impressive and beautiful buildings, inside and out, the Met is my favorite museum. The Cloisters is actually a part of the Met and houses its medieval art collection.

There were no admission charges for museums back then and New York is rich with museums. The Guggenheim was just being built, so I didn’t get there until college and it always made me a trifle seasick walking that strange corkscrew path, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art wasn’t just art: it was the history of the world in one huge building.

It was arranged as a time line. At the entrance, you started in the mummy room of a recreated Egyptian tomb where they had a couple of real mummies. The viewing room was in semi darkness and deliciously spooky. As you proceeded through the museum, each area represented a successive time period with recreated rooms full of furniture of the period and paintings, sculpture and other artifacts. You wound your way through until you reached the modern era … which is where the bathrooms were.

If you had to use the facilities, you navigated human history forward and backward, the closest I’ve ever come to time travel. If you had to go badly enough, you had a long trot through world history. I absorbed a lifetime of art, architecture, and history there. I snoozed through history classes in high school and college and still got As. No teacher or professor came close to offering comparable education. It is a fabulous museum. If you have never been there and happen to visit New York, don’t miss it.

The Cloisters on the Hudson River, Fort Tryon Park. It is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I spent days in the dusty basements of the big library, exploring the stacks and reading old manuscripts. I went to the Cloisters where I pretended I was living in mediaeval Europe. I also developed a lifelong passion for studying the middle ages and I can still bore everyone to tears with details of life in the 14th century. It’s a solitary passion.

For the last decade and a bit, I’ve watched my granddaughter fight her way through the public school system, grappling with the same issues I recall. She seems to have inherited the family gene for poor math skills. Despite a lot of talk, I don’t see much improvement in teaching methods. They are different, but equally ineffective.

Bright students are still mostly ignored. Help is given to the kids who struggle to learn, but it’s the kind of help that sounds a lot better than it is. Many kids still have no idea why or what they are doing. And schools still don’t feel any particular obligation to expend scarce resources on high IQ students who are presumed able to learn without help.

I did well enough in school. My grades were unspectacular both in high school and college. I graduated college with a 3.2 average, more or less B+ depending on how you calculate it. I did it without studying except in the few classes where a professor pushed me to really work.

I wonder what I might have achieved had I studied, if my education had been a challenge rather than a bore?

In the end, I had an okay career. Not spectacular, but pretty good. I learned in the workplace most of what I failed to learn in the classroom. My work required math and it turned out if I knew why I was doing it, I could do it. I needed context, not rote.

Our educational system wastes so much potential. Art and music classes have been eliminated. Help is reserved for problem learners and not much of that. Our schools’ aim is to create positive statistics on standardized tests, not to help students achieve their potential. Instead of increasing America’s investment in education, we cut resources and eliminate teachers. Then we wonder how come the U.S. is no longer a leader in the arts, math, science, or anything else. We get what we pay for: mediocrity.

IQ scores and standardized tests encourage rote memorization. Creativity, artistic talent, and original thinking are not part of an IQ score. You might be a musical genius, but it won’t get you through school unless you can pass standardized tests that involve no learning, just the ability to memorize facts and spit them out. Educators’ jobs are to get students to pass exams. Whether or not they learn anything is immaterial.

So much potential thrown away. It’s our future we’re tossing out. Everyone’s future.

 

A Palace in Queens: Loew’s Valencia

English: Looking northwest across Jamaica Aven...

Looking northwest across Jamaica Avenue at Loews Valencia.

Growing up, my favorite theater was the Valencia in Jamaica. No mere movie theater, it was an experience, a Hollywood production its own right. Here with my brother Matthew, I first experienced the glorious, magical world of movies.

It wasn’t my first trip to the movies, but it was my first trip to a real movie palace.

That first excursion to the Valencia was on a rainy Saturday afternoon. With not much else  to do, off we went to see Shane with Alan Ladd. It had just opened at the Valencia. It was 1953. I was 6. When I had to go to the ladies room, I became so enchanted by the theater, I got lost. The ceiling of the Valencia was called “atmospheric,” a dark distant sky full of realistic twinkling stars.

Not to mention the fountains and strange Rococo architecture the likes of which I doubt were ever seen in a “real” building and certainly never by me, even in my imagination. I couldn’t pull my eyes away and eventually forgot where we were seated in that vast building.

An usher with a flashlight had to help me find my family.

Today, as a Pentecostal Church.

The Valencia was in downtown Jamaica, Queens, about 3 or 4 miles from my house. It opened in 1929 and was the first of the five Loew’s ‘Wonder’ Theaters. Others would be in various parts New York, including Astoria, Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. My sister-in-law graduated in the Loew’s Paradise in the Bronx, twin theater to the Valencia.

Inside the Valencia.

The decorations are described variously as a mix of Spanish Colonial and pre-Columbian, but that doesn’t do it justice. It was fantasy land, and it was entirely unlike anything in reality. Certainly unlike anything in my reality or experience. The theater was enormous, with seating for 3,554, including a vast orchestra section and several balconies.

Architect John Eberson supposedly based his design on Spanish architecture motifs, using wrought iron railings, ornate tile work, sculpture and murals. I suspect a drug induced hallucinogenic state, but perhaps he just had an amazing imagination.

Its extraordinary combination of brick and glazed terra-cotta outside was purportedly inspired by Spanish and Mexican architecture of the Baroque or “Churrigueresque” period, though I have my doubts about that. Details included elaborate terra-cotta pilasters, cherubs, half-shells, volutes, floral swags, curvilinear gables and decorative finials … and of course within, lay that astonishing “atmospheric ceiling” full of stars.

English: 3-Manual, 8-Rank, Robert-Morton Organ.

The Valencia’s 3-Manual, 8-Rank, Robert-Morton Organ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1935, the Valencia began to show double features. By the 1950s, it had become my family’s the “go to” movie theater for a special Saturday afternoon. This continued right through the 1960’s.

The Loew’s Valencia was the most successful movie theatre in Queens. Its location in downtown Jamaica, which was then the primary shopping area in the borough and for Long Island before shopping malls changed all that, combined with the theater’s ability (part of the MGM system) to show new movies a week before any other theater in the borough, made it wildly popular.

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The Valencia (Photo credit: ho visto nina volare)

As for me, I’d have happily gone there even if no movie were showing. The theater was a star. Just those twinkling stars held me transfixed, hypnotized.

I would stand staring up at it until someone asked me if I was alright. I wasn’t, really. I was lost in the stars.

The Valencia ended its life as a movie theatre in May 1977. Since then, it has been the Tabernacle of Prayer for All People church.

At least it was spared the fate of so many other movie palaces. It was not leveled to make way for yet another cookie-cutter cinemaplex. That’s something.

Too much of a good thing? Richelle Mead’s Storm Born

Eugenie Markham — AKA Odile Dark Swan — fights creatures from the Otherworld for a living. She a shaman and she’s at the top of her game. It’s one Hell of a game she plays. Even so, she find it slightly disturbing to discover her name has become public knowledge in the Otherworld. Her true name, the one by which she can be summoned. It becomes even more disturbing when she realizes every bizarre creature she meets wants to mate her or rape her. Except for those who would rather just kill her. Not that she’s unused to danger, but this is a bit much.

When she meets an incredibly handsome, sexy veterinarian and falls into bed with him — not normally her style at all — then realizes that he’s not entirely human … well, that’s one unpleasant surprise over the line.

The shocks keep coming. Eugenie learns that she is not who she thought she was. In fact, hardly anyone or anything is what she thought it was and she has a lot of readjusting to do. Her most fundamental beliefs about good and evil, right and wrong are up for grabs. What she has to learn is overwhelming, but what she needs to unlearn is even harder.

This is a sexy, fun romp through the land of the Fae, or as they like to call themselves, “The Shining Ones.” There are Kings and Queens, battles, shape-shifters and plenty of sex. As in most fantasy books, all the guys are incredibly handsome. The women are astoundingly beautiful.

Sex makes the world explode. Magic is everywhere. There were times when the story reminded me more of something by Terry Pratchett than Richelle Mead. There’s a hint of wackiness in the story that made it sometimes extremely funny, clearly intentionally.

Storm Born is the first of a series that also includes The Thorn Queen,  Shadow Heir and Iron Crowned. All are available  as paperbacks and on Kindle, and as audiobooks from Audible.com.

I listened to this as well as reading it. Although I got through it, I did not at all like the narrator who was stiff and rather stilted and seemed miscast. I was disappointed in the audiobook and suggest that you might be happier reading this on Kindle or paper.

– – –

Back to the Zone

When I was first married, we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building at the end of a long hallway. It was in one of two identical buildings. We lived in apartment 2Q, a corner apartment. It had better ventilation than the apartments in the middle of the building. It was also quieter being farther away from the elevator.

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One day, having taken a bus home from downtown, I went in through the front and walked all the way down the corridor to our apartment. As I started to put my key in the door, I realized that there was a nameplate on the door. It said “2Q, Kincaid.”

My name was not then and is not now Kincaid, but the sign on the door said 2Q. It was the correct unit, but apparently I didn’t live there. I took a deep breath, walked back to the elevator then went back to the flat. It still said “Kincaid.”

I immediately realized what had happened. I had slipped through into a parallel universe. I was in another dimension where I didn’t exist. I’d been replaced by someone named Kincaid.

It took me a while, standing there and staring at the door before it occurred to me that I was in the wrong building. The two buildings were the same and I hadn’t been paying attention.

What’s interesting is not that I went into the wrong building but that I immediately assumed I’d slipped into the Twilight Zone. Would most people, finding themselves in that situation, conclude they’d slipped into a parallel universe? Or would think they had maybe walked into the wrong building? Which would you do?

I  suspect off-center thinking is part of creativity and certainly part of being a writer. A little piece of my brain is always busy recording events as future fodder for writing. Often, even in the middle of what could be a serious — even dangerous — situation, I have a little voice reminding me what a terrific story I’ll get out of it.

The problem with seeing everything as a potential story is that there is a tendency to hold oneself a bit apart, to be more concerned with watching than living. For almost ten years, I stopped taking pictures because I thought taking pictures was preventing me from truly seeing. I felt I was missing the party. Eventually, I went back to taking pictures and photography is the way I deal with the visual elements of life. I can’t stop seeing pictures framed into photographs, so I might as well carry a camera.

Nonetheless, I believe I was partially right. When you see life through a lens or are constantly planning how to write this thing that’s happening, you are not fully engaged in whatever is going on. Is that bad? Perhaps it’s just how I am, who I am. I can’t make myself not see pictures, not hear stories. It’s just how I relate to the world.

What about you?

What universe is this?

When I was first married we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building that was one of two identical brick buildings. We lived in apartment 2Q, at the far end of the hallway … a corner apartment which had better ventilation than apartments in the middle.

I didn’t drive yet.

One day, having taken the bus home from shopping, I went in through the front and proceeded all the way down the hall to our apartment. As I started to put my key in the door, I realized that there was a nameplate on the door. It said “2Q, Kincaid.”

Not my name. Right apartment, but not mine. Hmm.

I took a deep breath, walked back to the elevator then went back to the apartment. It still said “Kincaid.”

I immediately realized what had happened. I had slipped through into a parallel universe, another dimension. I didn’t exist. I’d been replaced by someone named Kincaid. It took me a while,  standing there and staring at the door before it occurred to me that I was in the wrong building. It was a simple enough mistake: the two building were identical and I just hadn’t been paying attention.

What’s interesting is not that I went into the wrong building but that I immediately assumed I’d slipped into my own personal Twilight Zone. The building on Front Street in Hempstead is student housing now, but it was a private apartment rental building back then.

Would most people, finding themselves in such a situation jump to the conclusion that they’d slipped into a parallel universe? Or would think they had maybe walked into the wrong building?

What would YOU think?

I sometimes wonder if a lot of my ability to get through a variety of bizarre and scary situations was because I didn’t relate to life as real but rather as if life — MY life — was a long book in which I was the main character. It was the narrator‘s fault.

From when I was perhaps 4 or 5 years old until a few years ago, I lived life in the third person. I had a narrator. She sat on my shoulder and told my story. She added “he said” and “she said” and provided full descriptions of people, places, and events as they were happening. She flushed out experiences by providing context and commentary. She’d always been there, or at least as far as I could remember so it seemed normal to me, though distracting.

This was nothing like “hearing voices.” The narrator was not independent. She WAS me. She didn’t talk to me but about me. She wrote me. She was a mini-me, perched on my shoulder, always watching, then instantly translating everything into a third person narrative. I was detached but watchful. I saw everything and remembered everything, especially what everyone said and exactly how they said it. I was almost never fully engaged, but I was an excellent witness.

Does — or did — everyone have a narrator at least sometimes, or it was only me? I’ve always wondered if it was something to do with being a writer.

A few years ago, I realized my narrator was gone. Did she slip away a little at a time or suddenly depart without so much as a note of farewell? I wonder why she left, why she was there in the first place. Gone as inexplicably as she’d arrived.

By the time I sat down and wrote a novel, she had been gone a while, though that was when I noticed her absence.

No longer perched on my shoulder, I’m totally in my life now, down and dirty. Without a narrator to tell my life story, I find I am much more surprised by experiences. I have lost the ability to detach. Life hurts more without a narrator.  I’m more real and I’m not the main character in a saga … just another confused soul on the road from wherever to someplace else.

Neighborhoods, Part 2

Continued from Neighborhoods

Other girls lived nearby but were not eligible to join our group. Tribal affiliation was accounted block by block. You belonged to the group of kids whose block you shared. Woe to he or she who lived on a block without other children of the same age and sex. The isolation would have been fearsome.

I did not know what went on in anyone else’s house but my own. I imagined that the lights were bright and cheerful in the other houses and there were no dark shadows, nor was there any sadness or pain anywhere but in my scary world.

In my world, the scream of a child in pain was an everyday background noise. It was the sound of life going on as usual. Behind it, you could hear my mother pleading: “Alf, please, the neighbors will hear!” as if the issue was really whether or not people knew what was going on. Did my mother believe if the neighbors didn’t hear the pandemonium, it didn’t count? Or if other people didn’t hear it, nothing had happened? Perhaps it was that she knew nothing else to say that might quiet my father, stop his rampage.

Meanwhile, across the street, Karen’s mother was drinking herself into a coma every night and the only thing that kept Karen from a nightly beating was her father. He was a kindly older man who seemed to be from another world. As it turned out, he would soon go to another world. Before summer was ended, Karen’s father died of a heart attack and after that, she fought her battles alone.

Down the street, in the old clapboard house where I thought Liz led a perfect life, an endless battle raged. Liz’s father never earned enough money and their house was slowly but surely crumbling around them. The house belonged to Liz’s grandmother who lived with them. Nana was senile, incontinent and mean, but she owned the place. No Nana, no house. In her lucid moments, she never failed to remind Liz’s dad that the entire family lived there on sufferance. Her sufferance. Where I imagined a life full of peace and good will, there was neither.

What a lovely neighborhood I grew up in. There we were, living in our fine old homes shaded by the giant white oaks, our green lawns rolling down to quiet streets where it was safe to play stick ball or tag any time of day or night. Few cars came through our little enclave, so far off the beaten track were we. I’m sure that the very few travelers that happened through, probably lost and looking for some other neighborhood much better traveled, envied us.

“How lucky these folks are,” they must have thought, seeing our grand old houses and huge properties. “These people must be so happy.”

I have a picture in my album. It’s in black and white and a bit faded now. It shows the three of us … Karen, Liz, and me … sitting in Liz’s back yard. Liz looks very pretty and somehow very grown-up. Karen looks like the kid from the Campbell’s soup commercial, all dimples and freckles, carefree and happy. There I am. I’m the tiny one. I was always the smallest, a pipsqueak, looking just a little sad, not quite smiling. My mother had wrangled my hair into two pony tails that day to keep it out of my eyes and tied a ribbon on each clump of hair.

We envied one another and thought the other much better off. It would be many years before we discovered one another’s secrets and by then, we would be adults and it would be too late to give each other the comfort we had all needed as we grew up, sad and alone in our houses, so many years ago.

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

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Neighborhoods

96-Holliswood1954People are surprised when I tell them that this town with its oak woods, huge plots of land, picket fences and farms reminds me of the neighborhood in which I grew up. I was raised in the middle of Queens, one of five boroughs that make up the city of New York.

My neighborhood was an anomaly. The city had grown up around us leaving us in a tiny rural enclave within easy walking distance of the subway.

My childhood home was more than a hundred years old or at least its foundation was. It had been changed by each family that lived in it. I’m sure the original builder would never have recognized it. It began life as a four room bungalow. Subsequent owners added to it, seemingly at random. By the time our family moved into it in 1950, it had become a warren of hallways, staircases and odd little rooms.

Two staircases went to the second floor, both of which ended on the same landing. Eighteen doorways on the first floor meant that there was not a single unbroken wall in any room. The living room was cavernous and dark. Amongst the many unfathomable additions to the house was the living room’s huge field stone fireplace that lacked a chimney. No mere faux ornament, the fireplace was a massive construction that completely dominated the room to no real purpose.

Despite the strange interior, the setting was stunning. Beautifully situated on more than two acres, it stood at top of a hill, enfolded by mature white oaks. They were the last remaining mature white oaks in New York state, the rest having been cut down to make masts for tall ships.

Because of their rarity, the city of New York cared for the trees free for as long as we lived there. My mother was passionate about trees, which is why she’d wanted the house. She became a fierce protector of her trees, never letting anyone as much as trim a branch from one of her precious oaks.

All the land belonging to the house lay either in front of it or off to the side. There was no back yard except for maybe a 15 foot sliver separating the house from the back property line. After that, the land there dropped abruptly downward … so sharply that it was useless for any purpose.

The house had been placed at the highest point of land on the property, set back about 250 feet from the road. The enormous trees towered over it. Summertime, when the trees were in full leaf, the house was invisible from the street. In all seasons, it was a long climb from the street to one of the house’s many doors.

Our oak trees loomed. No sunlight penetrated their canopy. The house stayed comfortable through most of the summer because of the perpetual shade, but was bitterly cold in winter.

My mother was stingy about heat. The furnace, an old converted coal burner, was nearly as old as the foundation and very inefficient. With huge amounts of hissing and groaning, it delivered some heat to the first floor of the house and almost none to the bedrooms on the second floor. I was cold from fall through spring, no matter how many blankets were piled on my bed. Some mornings, a thin skin of ice formed on the glass of water on my night table.

Being such a small, thin child, I was cold even when I was fully dressed. All complaints drew the same unsympathetic response from my mother.

“Put on another sweater,” she said. End of discussion.

Pointing out that there was a practical limit to the number of sweaters that I could actually wear was pointless. Once my mother had her mind made up, she was not going to be confused by facts.

The shadows of oak trees were always present, summer and winter. They were magnificent, but also ominous. Many branches of those oaks were bigger than the largest tree on our land in Mumford. As a child, I would watch those branches sway during storms and wonder when one of them would crash through the roof and crush me like a bug.

I was just past my fourth birthday when we moved into the house in Queens. I was considered a precocious child, which meant, I suppose, that I knew a lot of big words and could talk in full sentences. I’d had no contact with children my age and was a complete social retard.

When winter turned to spring and the weather warmed up, I was told to go out and play and so discovered that there were other little girls in the world. I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was supposed to do about that. I might as well have been commissioned to make peace with the Martians as make friends with other kids.

First contact took place on the sidewalk in front of my house. There we stood, three girls, all not yet five years old, staring at one another. We stood on one foot, then the other, there on the sidewalk until I broke the silence with a brilliant witticism.

“I live up there,” I said, and I pointed at my house. “We just moved here. Who are you?” I felt left out, as if the two of them formed a private club into which I already knew I wouldn’t be invited. And they were both pretty. I felt lumpy and awkward, standing there on the sidewalk.

“I’m Liz,” said a pretty girl with green eyes. She looked like a china doll, with a sweet, smooth face. Her hair was absolutely straight. I wanted that hair. I hated mine, which was wild and curly, always full of knots.

“I live down the street.” She gestured in the general direction. “There,” she pointed. The house was a barn red Dutch colonial. It had dark shutters and a sharply pitched roof.

A dark-haired, pink-cheeked, freckle-faced girl with braids was watching solemnly. “I’m Karen,” she said. “That’s my house,” she said, pointing at a tidy brick colonial across. There were bright red geraniums in ornate cement pots on both sides of a long, red brick staircase leading uphill to the house. I’d never seen either geraniums or vase-shaped masonry flower pots.

“Hello,” I said again, wondering what else I could say to keep them around for a while. I’d never had friends, but something told me I wanted some. We stood in the sunlight for a while, warily eyeing each other, old friends, the in-crowd. I the stranger. I shuffled from foot to foot.

“I’ve got a big brother,” I announced.

They were not impressed and I found myself at a loss for additional repartee. More silence ensued.

“We’re going to Liz’s house for lemonade,” Karen said, finally. Liz nodded. And they turned and went away. I wondered if we would meet again because at four years old, I hadn’t the experience to know that our future as friends was a virtual inevitability given the proximity of our homes.

Summer lasted much longer back then than it does nowadays. By the time spring had metamorphosed into summer, I had become a probationary member of The Kids Who Lived On The Block.

To be continued …

From The 12-Foot Teepee, by Marilyn Armstrong

Copyright 2007

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Woodcleft Canal

Freeport, Long Island. It’s in Nassau Country, the closest county on Long Island to New York city. I grew up in the city … in Queens, which is a borough of New York. Each of New York’s boroughs has its own character and in many ways, is a city in its own right. Certainly people who grow up in Brooklyn identify themselves as Brooklyn-ites and if you come from the Queens, Staten Island, or the Bronx, you will always identify that as your “home ground” rather than just “New York.”

Colorized postcard of Woodcleft canal with houses visible on the right side of the photo. Postmark: “” Merrick, N.Y, September 3, 1907″ Addressee and Address: “M.A. Hansen, 791 59th Street, Brooklyn” Message [on front]: “” Sept. 1, 07. Have a good time. May” – From the Freeport Historical Society Postcard Collection

Between the picture postcard and our visit lay almost exactly a century.

People from Manhattan have a strong sense of superiority because they come from The City. For reasons that are hard to explain, but perfectly obvious to anyone who has lived there or even visited for any length of time, Manhattan is the heart of New York in ways that cannot be simply explained. It’s not just because it’s the center of business. In fact, that really has little to do with it. It just is what it is. Even when I was a kid growing up in Queens, when we said we were going “into the city,” we  meant Manhattan. If we were going anywhere else in the five boroughs, we said we were going to Brooklyn or the Bronx or some specific neighborhood … but the city was Manhattan and no doubt still is.

I moved to Long Island in 1963 when I was 16 and had just started college. I never moved back to the city, though for many years, we went there for shows, museums, all the things available in a city and not in suburbs or other outlying areas. And of course, work.

A few years of my childhood, before I was 5 and moved to Holliswood, we lived in an apartment house — really, a tenement — on Rose Street in Freeport, near Woodcleft Canal.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the area near the canal was decrepit. Living “near the docks” was not a good thing, certainly nothing to brag about. My family was going through hard times and it was the best we could afford.

My mother hated it. It was the middle of nowhere and she didn’t drive. For her, born in Manhattan, a lifelong resident of New York, what was Freeport? Long Island? That was farm country where you went to buy vegetables at farm stands. My mother, an urbanite to her core, understood poverty but being poor in the country was her version of Hell.

My memories are limited but I see in my mind a big white stucco building with no architectural features. A large white box that didn’t fit into the neighborhood. It stuck out so that even by the less stringent standards of 60 years ago, it was an eyesore. It hasn’t lost that quality. It is still an ugly building, but I expect the rent is higher.

We drove down Rose Street to look at it. I was curious if I would recognize it, but I did. Instantly. I think early memories are deeply embedded in our psyches. Then, having satisfied curiosity, we found out way to the canal.

Reflections in the canal.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find the canal lined with marinas and yachts. The road along the canal has the usual expensive restaurants featuring faux nautical decor. It was a trifle weird.

There were many huge Victorian houses in Freeport back in the 1970s that you could buy for almost nothing. A great deal if you had a lot of money with which to fix one of them up. Those grand old houses … there are still a few around there and here too, but restoring one is big bucks and maintaining them, even if you can afford the initial restoration, out of the range of most people. I’m glad that some have survived. They are magnificent, though even thinking about the cost of heating one is frightening.

Everything changes.

You can’t go back in time except in your memory. Sometimes, if you treasure the way it was, how you remember it, it’s better not to revisit places. Keep your memories intact because then, the places you remember will always be the way they were.